Understanding Food Labels

Published Jul 31, 2018

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Food System

The labels on our food, from organic vegetables to USDA-inspected meat to cage-free eggs, can be confusing. How much do food labels actually tell you?

The labels on our food, from organic vegetables to USDA-inspected meat to cage-free eggs, can be confusing. How much do food labels actually tell you?

Updated 7/31/2023

We all have a right to know what’s in our food, how it’s produced, and where it’s from. But food companies are often not required to give us that information. The current rules on food labeling leave a lot of room for vague claims. 

These claims make it difficult to find food produced by sustainable farmers using humane practices, while giving cover to corporate agribusinesses that greenwash their products. As a result, the many labels we find on meat, poultry, and eggs can be overwhelming. 

This guide will help you know what labels really mean and how they affect you. But we need labels that are more accurate and useful. To get them, we need our elected officials to put our interests ahead of agrigbusiness corporations.

Some of the Most Useful Food Labels

These labels tell you something meaningful about your food and where it came from — though they may not mean quite what you think.

Certified Organic
Right now, the most meaningful label on your food, in terms of following specific government requirements, is the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal. Certified organic products must meet specific standards, including:

  • Organic crops cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, or sewage sludge;
  • Organic crops cannot be genetically engineered or irradiated (which exposes crops to radiation to extend shelf-life and kill pests, viruses, and bacteria);
  • Animals must eat only organically grown feed (without animal byproducts) and can’t be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics;
  • Animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants (like cows) must have access to pasture; and
  • Animals cannot be cloned.

Tell your representatives to support the Food Labeling Modernization Act for more transparent, simpler food labels!

USDA Inspected
A USDA inspection seal means that your food meets certain quality standards. This inspection screens for signs of contaminants that could lead to foodborne illness. It must be perfomed by USDA employees or company employees under USDA supervision.

All USDA-inspected meat and poultry (the vast majority of the meat in grocery stores) should have a USDA seal of inspection. It should also have a code for the producing establishment. 

Meat and egg labels with a grade (such as USDA Grade A beef or Jumbo eggs) are graded based on quality and size, not production methods. This seal tells you nothing about the company’s practices.

Private certification programs also exist, but they vary in standards, and it’s a good idea to do some research on their standards.

Treated with Irradiation
In grocery stores, food that has been irradiated must be labeled and marked with a radura symbol. Unfortunately, this labeling is not required in processed foods containing irradiated ingredients. Restaurants, schools, and hospitals also don’t have to use the label if they use irradiated food. 

Food Labels That Give Limited Information

Cage Free Eggs
“Cage free” means that birds are raised without cages. However, the label tells you nothing about any other living conditions. For instance, “cage free” eggs could come from birds raised indoors in overcrowded factory farms. 

Country of Origin Labels
The U.S. requires Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) on certain foods including chicken, seafood, produce, and some nuts. However, the food industry has limited even this most basic element of transparency. Until late 2015, mandatory country-of-origin labeling rules covered beef and pork. But the meat industry pressured Congress to repeal the labeling requirement, and it’s now voluntary. 

Moreover, a loophole has allowed companies to use labels like “Product of USA” on meat, poultry, and eggs from animals born and raised abroad. In March 2023, the USDA announced a proposed rule to close the loophole.

Pasture Raised
“Pasture-raised” or “pastured” means that animals spent at least some time outdoors on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. This traditional farming method is typically done on a smaller scale than factory-farmed animals. However, there are no government standards for this label, including how much time the animal spent on pasture. Producers get to make up their own definitions. 

Grass-Fed
“Grass-fed” means that, after weaning, an animal’s source of food comes from grass or forage, not from grains such as corn. This does not tell you if antibiotics or hormones were used on the animal or what conditions it lived in. 

Additionally, in 2016, the USDA dropped its official standards for “grass-fed.” For instance, some “grass-fed” beef may come from cattle finished on corn in feedlots. 

No Antibiotics
“Raised without antibiotics” or “no antibiotics given” means that the animal received no antibiotics over its lifetime. Some large-scale producers feed animals antibiotics at low doses to prevent disease. This is linked to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that may create infections that are difficult to treat. This label doesn’t tell you anything else about the animal’s living conditions.

If an animal receives antibiotics for any reason, companies cannot label its meat, milk, or eggs as “Certified Organic.”

No Hormones
The labels “raised without added hormones,” “no hormones administered,” or “no synthetic hormones” all mean that the animal received no artificial hormones in its life. Hormone-free labels don’t indicate what producers fed the animals with, or if the animals could access pasture.

Federal law prohibits the administration of hormones to poultry, veal, and exotic meat (like bison). Any “hormone-free” label on these products misleads shoppers into thinking that the product is worth a higher price. The USDA requires that these labels include a disclaimer: “There are no hormones approved for use in [poultry/veal/etc.] by Federal Regulations.” 

However, federal regulations do allow producers to use hormones in beef and dairy cattle, and for some uses in pork (such as for pregnancy). For instance, recombinant bovine growth hormone (also known as rBGH or rBST) is a human-made growth hormone commonly injected into dairy cattle to increase their milk production. Growers also use hormones to speed up the growth of beef cattle.

Thanks to years of activism, companies can now use “rBGH-free” or “rBST-free” labels on milk products. However, due to industry pressure, they must come with a disclaimer that the FDA acknowledges no difference between milk produced with or without hormones.

Misleading Food Labels

Free Range
“Free range” labels are regulated by the USDA only for poultry produced for meat. It’s not regulated for pigs, cattle, or egg-producing chickens — nor are the requirements very stringent. Poultry companies can use the label if the chickens had any access to the outdoors each day, with no requirements on how long. It could be just a few minutes, and there’s no guarantee that the animal actually went outdoors. 

Natural and Naturally Raised
According to the USDA, “natural” meat and poultry products cannot contain artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. These products should also be “minimally processed.” 

However, this label doesn’t tell us how the animals were raised, what they were fed, if producers used antibiotics or hormones, or any other aspect of production that consumers might logically expect from something labeled “natural.”

For all other foods (milk, eggs, and non-animal food products), the “natural” label is virtually meaningless.

Fresh
Contrary to what you might expect, the label “fresh” is used only on poultry to indicate that the meat was not cooled below 26°F. Poultry must be labeled “frozen” only when it reaches 0°F. This can be misleading, as many consumers assume that the label means the meat hasn’t been frozen, processed, or preserved in any way. The USDA doesn’t define or regulate “fresh” levels on any other type of product.

Pasture-Raised
“Pasture-raised” or “pastured” means that animals spent at least some time outdoors on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. However, there are no government standards for this label, including how much time the animal spent on pasture. 

Bioengineered (GMOs)
In July 2016, Congress passed a weak federal law on labeling genetically-modified food (GMOs) that blocked states from requiring stricter GMO labels, as Vermont did at the time. It requires that food companies disclose whether their products contain GMOs, but they can make this information difficult to access.

For instance, instead of using the “Bioengineered” label, companies can just use a QR code, web address, or 1-800 number that connects consumers with more information. This requires users to have a cell phone and access to cellular data or Wi-Fi — and the time to go through this cumbersome process for each product. 

Moreover, products with any label like “non-GMO” are verified by third-party organizations. The only products we can ensure have no GMOs are those labeled “organic,” as the USDA regulates that label to exclude products made with GMOs.

Despite industry claims, there is no scientific consensus regarding the safety of GMO foods. Yet, the weak approval process for new GMO crops relies solely on testing by the companies that want to sell these new crops. That’s why we’re pushing to require clear labels on all foods with GMO ingredients. Only by standing up for transparency in our food will we get the information we need.

Update (July 31, 2023): This year, Congress is considering the Food Labeling Modernization Act (S.1289). This bill would bring transparency and simplicity to our country’s food labeling requirements. By establishing a single, standard front-of-packaging labeling system, it will help us make informed choices at the grocery store.

Join our efforts to pass the Food Labeling Modernization Act! Urge your representatives to support it.

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